Baseball returned as a medal event in the 2020 Olympics after not being included in 2012 or 2016.
The games were originally scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan (though the baseball portion was played elsewhere in Japan) starting on July 24, 2020, but like many other sporting competitions around the world, they fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic that swept the planet in the early months of that year. At first, Japanese authorities were adamant that the games would be held as scheduled, stating that a delay was not an option, but reality got the better of that position. As it became clear that a return to some sort of normalcy would not happen in most of the world until the summer, and with massive travel restrictions in place, athletes finding themselves unable to train properly, and a number of qualifying events canceled or postponed, including the 2020 Final Olympic Qualification Tournament for baseball, the Japanese Organizing Committee came under great pressure to make a decision. With major national federations, including those of Canada and Australia announcing on March 22nd that they would not compete in the games if held as scheduled, and the United States Olympic Committee sending a petition to the Japanese to delay the games, there was little choice left. On March 24th, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that he and International Olympic Committee Head Thomas Bach had agreed to postpone the games by one year, with the opening ceremonies scheduled for July 23, 2021.
The new dates also came under pressure, as in January 2021, with the world in the middle of a second wave of the pandemic, stronger in many places - including Japan - than the first, rumors began to circulate that the games would be simply scrapped, and Tokyo would be awarded the 2032 games as compensation (hosts had already been designated for 2024 and 2028). This was shot down by the Japanese government at the end of the month, but not everyone was convinced how long they would continue, with public opinion in Japan having now turned overwhelmingly against holding the games. Another problem occurred the following month, when local organizing committee head Yoshiro Mori made some incredibly sexist public remarks, and after a week of pressure was forced to resign on February 12th. On March 9th, unconfirmed news came out that the games would take place - but with no foreign spectators present to watch them, and with some events entirely closed to the public. Even with the progress of vaccination (which was extremely slow in Japan compared to other parts of the developed world), it was simply not possible to manage the huge crush of spectators that would normally be there for the games, and all the health risks that the situation would entail. This was officially confirmed on March 20th. In early July it was also confirmed that the Japanese public would also be barred from attending most events, as this was the price to pay to have the games take place at all.
In an interesting side note, Eddy Alvarez, a member of the U.S. baseball team, was selected as one of two flag-bearers for the U.S. at the Opening Ceremonies on July 23, 2021. Alvarez was selected for his remarkable personal story, including taking part in the 2014 Winter Olympics as a short-track speed skater and winning a silver medal as part of the relay team. He was the first baseball player to be selected for the honor by Team USA and was joined by Sue Bird, a member of the women's basketball team. The opening ceremonies also featured Japanese baseball legends Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima and Hideki Matsui.
As usual, the Olympic baseball teams did not have access to players on current MLB rosters, but active NPB and KBO players were available. Teams thus went to a mix of former major league stars (ex. Jose Bautista for the Dominicans, Todd Frazier for the US, Masahiro Tanaka for Japan, Ian Kinsler for Israel), top prospects like Julio Rodríguez and the top players from the Japanese and Korean leagues; in addition to people representing Japan and South Korea, this included people like Brandon Laird (Mexico) and Scott McGough (USA).
Before the baseball portion began, the Mexican team ran afoul of Olympic rules. 11 players had played for manager Benji Gil with the Tomateros de Culiacán (already a sore point with some in Mexico, who felt he showed undue favoritism to his players in assembling the team) and had taken a photo together while in Japan, in violation of Olympic rules which only allow photos in the national uniform. The Mexican Olympic Committee spoke out against Gil and the Tomateros as well.
Competing are Japan, Israel, South Korea, Mexico, United States and Dominican Republic; Mexico and Israel will make their Olympic debuts. Both newcomers relied on American players - the Israelis on American Jewish players who obtained Israeli citizenship to help their Olympic chances and Mexico had many Mexican-Americans on their qualifying team. Both teams had players who had previously represented the US in fact - Kinsler for Israel, Danny Espinosa for Mexico.
Preliminary Round Results
|12:00 at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium|
|Pitchers of Record|
|Win: Ryoji Kuribayashi (1-0) Loss: Jairo Asencio (0-1)|
|Dominican Republic: None|
|HP: Hua-Wen Chi (Taiwan); 1B: Trevor Grieve (Canada); 2B: Kevin Sweeney (USA); 3B: Jair Fernandez (Mexico)|
|Time of Game: 3:16 |
There were no fans in attendance due to the pandemic; had there been, they would have had plenty to cheer about as the hosts staged a big comeback in the bottom of the 9th to take the opener. CF Emilio Bonifacio was the first Olympic batter in 13 years, while RF Julio Rodríguez got the first hit. Both starters were superb; Yoshinobu Yamamoto struck out nine and allowed two hits in six shutout innings, while C.C. Mercedes (no stranger to Japanese batters, having pitched for several years in NPB) matched him zero for zero.
In the top of the 7th, Koyo Aoyagi replaced Yamamoto. DH Juan Francisco singled, LF Johan Mieses struck out and 3B Erick Mejia singled. After SS Jeison Guzmán flew out, C Charlie Valerio came up huge, with a double to the gap in left-center, scoring both runners. Following a walk, Kaima Taira relieved to escape further harm. Japan got one run back in the bottom of the inning. 1B Hideto Asamura singled and CF Yuki Yanagita doubled to chase Mercedes. Luis Castillo relieved and fanned 2B Ryosuke Kikuchi but 3B Munetaka Murakami grounded in Asamura to make it 2-1.
Japan nearly tied it in the 8th against Jumbo Díaz. DH Tetsuto Yamada singled and was bunted over by SS Hayato Sakamoto. LF Masataka Yoshida singled to left and Yamada tried to score, but Mieses gunned him down at the plate. The Dominicans got insurance in the top of the 9th against rookie Ryoji Kuribayashi. Mejia doubled and Guzmán drew a walk. Valerio hit into a force at second, then 2B Gustavo Núñez doubled to score Mejia. Kobayashi avoided any more trouble by striking out both Bonifacio and Rodríguez.
That proved to be essential when Jairo Asencio failed to close it out for the Dominicans. After Asamura flew out, Yanagita and PH Kensuke Kondo both singled. Murakami singled to make it 3-2, then Sosuke Genda pinch-ran for Kondo. C Takuya Kai bunted Genda in, all the runners being safe, to tie it. Yamada singled to center to load the bases. Jhan Maríñez was summoned to try to stop the bleeding but Sakamoto singled in Murakami with the winner. Japan had gotten five of their nine hits in the bottom of the 9th, while only registering one out.
|7:00 at Yokohama Stadium|
|Pitchers of Record|
|Win: Seung-hwan Oh (1-0) Loss: Jeremy Bleich (0-1)|
|Israel: Ian Kinsler, Ryan Lavarnway 2 |
Japan: Ji-hwan Oh, Jung-hoo Lee, Hyun-soo Kim
|HP: Kenjiro Mori (Japan); 1B: Edwin Hernández (Puerto Rico); 2B: Mark Winters (USA); 3B: Fabrizio Fabrizi (Italy)|
|Time of Game: 3:20 |
Israel made its Olympic debut in fine fashion, taking defending Gold Medalist South Korea to extra innings before falling.
Things did not start well for Israel; CF Hae-min Park singled off Jon Moscot, who then left the game with injury, replaced by Jake Fishman, a late addition to the Israeli roster. Fishman provided strong relief, throwing shutout ball for the first three innings. Israel went ahead in the 3rd against Tae-in Won. RF Mitch Glasser singled and 2B Ian Kinsler hit a one-out homer to left for a 2-0 lead.
South Korea came back in the 4th. C Min-ho Kang, one of the few remaining players from the 2008 Olympic team, singled off Fishman. SS Ji-hwan Oh homered to tie it. 3B Kyoung-min Hur doubled and 2B Hye-seong Kim singled, chasing Fishman in favor of Alex Katz, who retired Park to escape further damage.
Won-joon Choi pitched perfect relief in the 4th and 5th, fanning four, but ran into difficulty in the 6th. 1B Danny Valencia singled and C Ryan Lavarnway homered for a 4-2 lead. The Koreans came back in the bottom of the 7th when RF Jung-hoo Lee and LF Hyun-soo Kim hit back-to-back dingers against Zack Weiss to tie it. With one out, 1B Jae-il Oh singled, and with two out, Ji-hwan Oh doubled him in. Oh, they had come back!
In the 9th, South Korea turned to another of their 2008 Olympians, Seung-hwan Oh (a late addition this year). With one out, Lavarnway homered for the second time to tie it up. Oh was much sharper in the 10th (with two runners on thanks to the extra-inning tiebreaker rules), striking out the side (Glasser, SS Scotty Burcham and Kinsler). In the bottom of the 10th, Israel turned to veteran Jeremy Bleich. Backup 2B Jae-gyun Hwang laid down a sacrifice to advance PR Kun-woo Park. Ji-hwan Oh (3-for-3 to that point) flew out, then 3B Kyoung-min Hur was plunked to load the bases. Backup C Eui-ji Yang was then hit as well to force in the winner.
|12:00 at Yokohama Stadium|
|Pitchers of Record|
|Win: Ángel Sánchez (1-0) Loss: Teddy Stankiewicz (0-1) Save: Luis Castillo (1)|
Dominican Republic: None
|HP: Jorge Niebla (Cuba); 1B: Mark Winters (USA); 2B: Jairo Mendoza (Nicaragua); 3B: Trent Thomas (Australia)|
|Time of Game: 3:01 |
Mexico made its Olympic debut and, like Israel, came close in a one-run loss. Both starters turned in fine efforts in a pitching duel, Ángel Sánchez allowing two hits, one walk and no runs in five for the Dominicans while Teddy Stankiewicz began with four scoreless for the Mexicans. In the 5th, C Charlie Valerio doubled off Stankiewicz and advanced on a grounder by 2B Yefri Pérez. After another out, DH Melky Cabrera singled him in for the game's lone run. RF Julio Rodríguez singled for one of his three hits today, but Fernando Salas relieved and struck out 1B Juan Francisco to end the inning.
Mexico got its best shot in the 6th, after Ramón Rosso (a late addition to Mexico's squad) took over. 3B Isaac Rodríguez singled. With one out, LF Joey Meneses got a hit to left; Rodríguez tried to score but was gunned down at the plate by 40-year-old José Bautista, the second time the Dominican left fielders had thrown out a runner at home in two days. Darío Álvarez, Jumbo Díaz and Luis Castillo each turned in a hitless inning to close it out.
|7:00 at Yokohama Stadium|
|Pitchers of Record|
|Win: Joe Ryan (1-0) Loss: Joey Wagman (0-1)|
|USA: Tyler Austin|
Israel: Danny Valencia
|HP: Masaharu Kasahara (Japan); 1B: Kwang-hoe Kwang (South Korea); 2B: Jair Fernandez (Mexico); 3B: Trevor Grieve (Canada)|
|Time of Game: 2:27 |
In the first rout of the Olympics, the US wins their opener. Israel challenged in the first against recently-traded prospect Joe Ryan. 3B Ty Kelly hit a one-out double and CF Blake Gailen a two-out single but yesterday's hero C Ryan Lavarnway was retired; he was otherwise 2-for-3 today. In the third, the US went ahead when SS Nick Allen had a one-out single off Joey Wagman and 2B Eddy Alvarez smacked a RBI double, followed by a two-run homer by DH Tyler Austin.
In the bottom of the 4th, Israel got on the board with a homer by 1B Danny Valencia. Lavarnway and DH Nick Rickles had one-out singles but Ryan retired LF Robb Paller and RF Mitch Glasser to end the inning and Israel wouldn't really threaten again. D.J. Sharabi pitched shutout ball for Israel in the 4th and 5th but the US scored every inning thereafter. In the 6th, 3B Todd Frazier reached on an error by 2B Ian Kinsler and later scored on a hit by CF Bubba Starling off Jeremy Bleich.
The US padded their lead in the 7th against Jonathan de Marte. LF Jamie Westbrook reached on a Paller era and Alvarez and Austin followed with RBI doubles. In the top of the 8th, RF Eric Filia singled off one of the few native Israelis, veteran Shlomo Lipetz, and stole second, then advanced on two grounders to score. In the 9th, another native Israeli, Alon Leichman, allowed a double to Austin (his third extra-base hit of the day) and 1B Triston Casas singled in the run.
- Michael Clair: "Ex-MLB stars lead Team USA into Olympics: Who will take home the gold?", mlb.com, July 25, 2021. 
- Tom Schad: "2020 Tokyo Olympics officially postponed due to coronavirus outbreak", USA Today, March 24, 2020. 
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